“Madame, I hope you will now stop defending the human rights of terrorists.” This comment on my facebook page does indeed reflect the thinking of some Tunisians in the aftermath of the murderous attacks at the Bardo Museum. The same view is being hammered with unprecedented relentlessness in the media.
An avalanche of statements from senior officials, intellectuals, and police union members has poured forth with the same message. Education Minister Néji Jalloul declared on an independent TV station that “Terrorists don’t respect human rights, so we shouldn’t respect theirs.” An editorial writer for the daily paper Le Temps lashed out at “Moralistic defenders of human rights, in their Sunday best, cozily ensconced in their vast ivory towers.”
Human rights activists have thus become the target of a stream of public opinion that holds them responsible for government negligence in the fight against terrorism. But the function of rights organizations is to urge the authorities, in their security strategy, to respect certain fundamental rules safeguarding the lives, dignity, and freedoms of their citizens. The voices denouncing rights drive us into a mimicry of savagery that could well escalate the violence and atrocities. They implicitly justify the torture of “terrorists” and ask us to shut our eyes to abuses because these beings are not “human.”
When we accept this rhetoric we forfeit a measure of our own values and could well end up as dispossessed of these rights as those identified as terrorists are. When we legitimize police abuses of the law, restrictions on rights, and brushing aside fundamental guarantees, all of us – good apples and bad, guilty and innocent – become more vulnerable to government lawlessness. The abusive police practices we endorse today against these individuals could be more widely applied to us all in the future.
To say this is not to endorse less vigilance or a weaker response to the savagery of extremists. Insistance on respect for the rule of law is essential to any effective fight against terrorism. Abuses and gratuitous acts of violence, on the other hand, provide fertile breeding ground for terrorism, which feeds off these abuses and injustices as well as the failure of officials to see its deeper social and political causes. They can indeed exacerbate the resentment some youths feel against security forces they see as an army of repression, and aggravate their day-to-day sense of alienation, pushing them into the arms of extremist groups.
Anti-human-rights rhetoric is both dangerous and counterproductive. It doesn’t produce rational solutions to the problem of terrorism. And in Tunisia, it only weakens the institutions of a rule of law still in its infancy.